The potential impact of Brexit on higher education “ranges from bad, to awful, to catastrophic”, the principal of Edinburgh University has warned.
Professor Sir Timothy O’Shea told MPs that while the outcome of leaving the European Union is as yet unknown, “however you parameterize it, things get worse”.
Edinburgh University is ranked in the world’s top 20 higher education institutions, with the principal and vice-chancellor stressing the importance of overseas staff and students to the sector. He urged Prime Minister Theresa May to consider striking a “special deal”, warning any future restrictions on the free movement of Europeans would have a damaging impact on the sector. And he warned: “If Brexit isn’t appropriately negotiated they could be damaged in a very serious way.
He was speaking as MPs on the Scottish Affairs Committee took evidence on the impact of Brexit from key industries north of the Border.
Sir Timothy said a third of Edinburgh University’s research is carried out in collaboration with academics from other EU countries, while a quarter of research staff are from other parts of the EU.
He said many of these workers “have now been in Scotland for 20 or 30 years and are desperately worried about their future, and about ten per cent of our research funding”.
With 42 per cent of Edinburgh students coming from outside of the UK, he said the “anxiety and distress for the future is palpable”.
He added: “The big research problems, whether it is environment, or dementia, or the hunt for the Higgs boson, these are not done at the level of Scotland, or the UK, or for that matter Europe, these are deeply international.”
With an exit deal not yet negotiated between the UK and the remainder of the EU, and with a lack of detail about what any future arrangements could look like, Sir Timothy said “we don’t know where we’re going to get to”.
But he stated: “What one can say with confidence is however you parameterize it, things get worse. The issue is not do they get worse, the question is how much worse, how much less access to EU funding, how much less support. There is a large amount of uncertainty and when you run different models it ranges from bad, to awful, to catastrophic.”